For Religious Liberty

For Religious Liberty

The kingdom of God will not be advanced by the sword. Peter wanted to pick up the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. “We’re not going to build the kingdom that way,” said Jesus. You cannot point me to a single verse in the New Testament—there is not the slightest whiff in the New Testament—that we advance the kingdom of God by the sword. Isaac Backus again: “Our glorious Head [Jesus] made no use of secular force in the first setting up of the gospel church.” Jesus and the apostles didn’t need the sword to set up churches, which are the pathway to true righteousness and justice and love of neighbor.  Do we? 

My ostensible purpose for standing here is to present a defense for religious liberty. I’ve been invited as the Baptist after all. And if you’ve never attended a Baptist church, you should know that religious liberty is really the only thing we try to teach our kids in their Sunday school classes. Presbyterians teach their kids about the Bible’s glorious covenants. Lutherans teach their kids about the law and the gospel. Methodists are talking about sanctification and piety. Baptists, well, we got religious liberty.

Of course, a growing number of Christians wonder if religious liberty is really the best doctrine to be teaching in this morally chaotic and, frankly, neo-pagan age. In fact, couldn’t it be that this Baptist emphasis really is just classical liberalism talking, because we’ve been co-opted, and that it’s led to the rampant individualism and anti-authority-ism, that’s participated in creating our present moral chaos? Honestly, those are good questions to ask. I think in some cases, I assume the answers are “yes.”

For our purposes here, I don’t want to merely think through the matter as a theologian or theoretician. Instead, I want to place the conversation inside a pastoral framework. Meaning, let’s think about real people, at this moment in history, and put our theology into the service of that.

Recently, I had breakfast with a friend whose 18-year-old nephew—let me call him “Sam”—committed suicide a few months back. Sam, who struggled with mental health issues, lost his way. Yet my friend also talked about the larger world of TikTok, and deconstruction, and questions about gender, and a whole culture telling Sam he was free to be whoever he wanted to be. Sam lacked the structures, the moorings, the fixed points of moral evaluation, to answer the question, “Who am I?” He couldn’t get a grip. So he took his life.

It should make you angry—angry at all those cultural forces which have set themselves to destroying the good, the true, the beautiful, undermining and destroying 18-year-olds like Sam. Others, you know, turn to drugs, or shopping, or body cult, or a hundred other distractions. There’s nothing to live for.

My friend’s story hit home because my nephew is 19 and is trying to find his way. His sister is 17. My three older daughters are 16, 15, and 13. All of them have grown up with weekly church attendance, family worship, parental discipleship. But they’re facing the same world as Sam.

What do my daughters, and my niece and nephew, as they leave homes which have been shaped by the truths of Christianity, need? Most of all, they need Jesus. Both for the sake of this life and the next, they need Jesus. And so my wife and I pray and pray and pray, and then we’ll wait.

But let me refine the question: what do these teenagers need and not need from societies larger structures, like church and state, so that they might know Jesus? I’m setting the conversation up this way, because I think it puts us in the right framework. Christians should approach every action, structure, and decision in life asking the question, how will this help me and my fellow Christians, and the world, better know Jesus? It should be our driving question in everything. Sam’s story, tragically, is over. But there are millions more Sams launching into the world. So what do my niece and nephew and my teenage daughters need and not need? Seven things.

1. They don’t need to be treated like children any longer, but like adults, and a state which seeks to implement the first table of the law treats them like children.

The Magisterial Reformers may have believed the magistrate’s jurisdiction “extends to both tables of the law” and to protecting true worship because “no polity can be successfully established unless piety be its first care.” So argued John Calvin by appealing to the Davidic kings. And in one sense he’s right. People will not truly love their neighbors and refrain from murder, stealing, lying, and sexual deviancy if they don’t first love God. The second table depends on the first. Love of neighbor depends on love of God.

Therefore—the Magisterial Reformers reasoned—we should criminalize violations of the first table.

It’s that “therefore” that I disagree with. There’s a difference between recognizing moral truths and realities and granting the state the authority to enforce them. A moral “is” does not equate to a governmental “ought.” So it’s true that laws against murder and stealing will only be fully obeyed among a people who worship no other gods—see heaven. Yet that doesn’t mean the nations of the world outside of ancient Israel, whether today or in the days of the Old Testament, have been authorized to wield the sword against first table infractions.

Furthermore, how well did the Mosaic Covenant’s call to enforce the first table work for Israel? Did it, as Calvin says, establish piety as Israel’s first care? Don’t the lessons of Israel’s failure and exile teach the exact opposite? Isn’t the takeaway lesson that human beings can have God’s own law written on stone, God’s hand selected kings and priests, God’s own presence in the temple, and yet they still worship other gods and sacrifice their children to idols? If laws against blasphemy didn’t work for them, why do we think it will work for us? If the answer is, “Well, we have Holy Spirit-indwelled churches now,” then, yes, we do. But we don’t have a Holy-Spirit-indwelled nation. So why, again, would we expect first table enforcement to work any differently for our nation than for the Israelite nation?

For as much as our doctrine of total depravity depends on Reformed theologians like Calvin, a Reformed Baptist like me would suggest he failed to apply that doctrine adequately to his political theology. The divinely-intended political theological lesson of Israel’s failure is that our hearts are so corrupt that the sword can do nothing—absolutely nothing—to change them, which is why Jesus refused Peter’s grab at a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. Nothing other than the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit will yield obedience to the First Table of the law, so look for such obedience in your churches. Patrol those borders for First Table adherence. The church now possesses this priestly job, not the nation. To seek to enforce the First Table should necessarily lead to the death penalty and exile, because “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Indeed, that’s why God exiled Israel.

Second Table enforcement, however, is different. By God’s common grace, non-Christians really can be expected and made to keep aspects of it. We really can enforce laws against murder and stealing. Idolatry? Good luck. That’s one lesson of ancient Israel.

Not only that, it’s true I require my children to attend church and endure family worship at home. But I’ve never criminalized or punished violations of the first table in my home. Can you imagine punishing your children for—all by itself— not loving God?

The question I’d ask of the First Table-Enforcers today is, do they think that launching my children and theirs into a society that punishes First Table infractions, if only by making them second-class citizens, really helps them to know Jesus? Do they assume our children will respond well to that?

Suppose I had a rebellious child. Suppose she evidenced this rebellious nature from a young age, and it continues through her teenage years. What exactly do the First-Table enforcers think governmental laws will do that my home laws, combined as they are with love and personal knowledge and affirmation and affection, will accomplish?

Magisterial Protestantism, and various forms of theonomy, and a certain variety of Christian nationalism, sometimes draw an analogy to the “Christian family.” They argue that, in the same way a so-called Christian parents establish structures, rules, and practices that are conducive to Christian belief, so can the state. Yet in so doing, they treat adults as children. They infantilize them.

My point here is not, “That’s insulting. How dare you treat people like children!” The point is, adults aren’t children. They’re not wired like children, particularly children living in the homes of Christian parents. Recall how Jesus said we need the faith of a child? Therefore, we launch them from the home. We remove the strictures we placed on them. For one, we stop requiring them to attend church with us. In general, we should not expect such structures-conducive-to-belief, whatever those are, to work for adults like they do for children. It’s strange to me, therefore, that the First-Table enforcers want to extend the parental hand out of the home, down the street, and into all of life for the child that the parent has let go of.

And that brings me to a second point.

2. Our sons and daughters, launching into the world, don’t need false gods and false Christianities established in the public square.

For every time you manage to get hold of the sword to prosecute your religion or your sect, seven other times someone else will get a hold of it to prosecute theirs against yours. Isaac Backus commented, “the same sword that Constantine drew against the heretics, Julian turned against the orthodox.”

One question those who call for the legal implementation of first table matters never answer is, how can you guarantee it’s your God or your version of Christianity, and not, say, Joe Biden’s Christianity, which is being established? And here’s where the whole comparison to the so-called  “Christian family” breaks down. What’s the starting point for what people call a “Christian family”? Christian parents. Great. Christian parents should implement Christian structures and expectations. Yet then folks make the quick analogy. “The government should do what Christian parents do.” Okay, but with Christian parents, you are, by definition, starting with the most important thing: Christians. With a government, you’re not. So how can you guarantee it? Because the whole theory of government propounded by First-Table establishers depends on it.

Not only that, the Bible assigns parents with the broadest authority of any authority on earth. It’s effectively totalitarian, extending from learning to wipe your bottom to instructions on worship. Are you sure that you want to draw that analogy, and hand such a broad, totalitarian authority to the government? In Russia, you’ll get a Roman Orthodox church. You want that? In Italy, a Roman Catholic one. Do you want that? And never mind what you’ll get in the nations governed by other religions.

No, I don’t want any of these things for my daughters in order for them to know Jesus, nor do I want the government treating them with the same authority as my own.

3. They need the freedom to make their own decisions about who God is and whether or not they will follow him.

Friends, get into your heads any non-Christian you know. Can you really imagine trying to induce them toward Christianity with any type of threat? Any type of penalty? Any type of tax? Any type of second class citizenship? Can you imagine saying to that non-Christian you’re thinking of, “We’re going to fine you for not loving Jesus like we think you should?” Do you think that will work?

If so, I question your understanding of psychology, not to mention the Holy Spirit, the new birth, and conversion. Again, do you do that even with your kids now? Is it law that Paul says will bring us to repentance? Or the kindness and the grace of God (see Rom. 2:4)?

The kingdom of God will not be advanced by the sword. Peter wanted to pick up the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. “We’re not going to build the kingdom that way,” said Jesus. You cannot point me to a single verse in the New Testament—there is not the slightest whiff in the New Testament—that we advance the kingdom of God by the sword. Isaac Backus again: “Our glorious Head [Jesus] made no use of secular force in the first setting up of the gospel church.” Jesus and the apostles didn’t need the sword to set up churches, which are the pathway to true righteousness and justice and love of neighbor.  Do we?

To put this third point another way: enforcing the First Table operates by kingdom of man logic (triumph through power) rather than kingdom of God logic (triumph through weakness). What do our teenagers and non-Christian friends, what does the church itself, need to learn about Jesus? That with his first-coming, he foregrounded his work of priestly weakness and sacrifice. He does not foreground his work of kingly triumph until his second coming. That’s one of the things that changed from the old covenant to the new. Isaiah teaches that the Davidic King, who established the kingdom of Israel in strength, would turn out to be the suffering servant, who established the kingdom of God in weakness. And yet now, folk think we’re to do it like Israel did it? Did we miss how Christ said he would build his kingdom?

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